Conversation with a Thump Queen
In her book, Thump Queen and other Southern Anomalies, photographer Meryl Truett managed to capture the image of a large wooden pig suspended midair on a platform advertising fine art photos for sale. Presumably because pigs are photogenic, and therefore exude the necessary physique for com- merce, the owner of that mysterious unnamed business thought it wise to employ such a tactic. Hopefully, business is booming.
Such snapshots of our culture can, at times, necessitate that us Southerners explain our ethos to outsiders, and as anyone traveling down the back roads of Georgia can attest, there is a whole mess of quirkiness that exists down here.
As an artist and cultural documentarian, Truett—a Savannah College of Art and Design M.F.A. graduate whose work has been featured in several national publications and is represented in the private collections of Rosanne Cash and Chet Atkins, among others—is dedicated to chronicling the South in all its oddball glory. She is, in her words, “interested in the authentic, hard-scrabble South of hand-scrawled signs stabbed into the piney-woods and makeshift BBQ joints” that dot the region’s less traveled roads. Taking a more anthropological view of her subjects and preserving the decayed beauty of the South's weathered relics, Truett has been able to depict the South as a place of lyrical imagination, humor and deep wisdom.
The South magazine: One of the mainstays of Southern life is our use of signs—not simply as advertisements, but as statements of fact, opinion & religion as we see it. What is it about our region that drives us to create these freestanding soliloquies?
Meryl Truett: To me, the handwritten, folksy message signs are really language in the landscape. The South has always been a region that reveres literature and the written word, probably because of deep- rooted religious beliefs and the attachment to reading the Bible. Also, our British, Scottish, Irish [and African] ancestors brought with them a love of language and literature. Southerners love telling stories and passing the time on the porch, on the street or even in parked parallel cars going in the opposite directions in the middle of the road. With the proliferation of graphic design, mechanical printing and professional signage, the faded, deteriorating signs become more unusual and more precious. They serve as a reminder of an era and a lifestyle when handmade signs, like hand- made arts and crafts, were the norm instead of the exception.
TSM: Now that Savannah is experiencing a dramatic growth in both residen- tial and commercial areas, as a photographer, how do you see the city evolving? Do you think that we can maintain our uniqueness, or are we doomed to become average?
MT: Unfortunately, I think we've crossed a line in Savannah and we won't be going back. While I appreciate the progress, I lament what we have lost in quirkiness and individuality. My work documents and celebrates what remains of the unique and strange Savannah that is fast disappearing.
TSM: Oftentimes, all that people see of the South when traveling Highway 16 or Interstate 95 are ghosts of our past. Sure, you can still see the fields of cotton, the vacant barns and dilapidated buildings, but we don't get a feel for that time when back roads really were the only means of getting anywhere. Your photos bring to life the vitality of those rural towns still clinging to the old concrete highways when an attraction like “the world's smallest church” could get people to pull over. When photographing these places, how much of it is about longing for the past and how much is about keeping us aware of where we came from?
MT: I am interested in documenting the mythologized South that maybe never existed while trying not to fall into stereotyping it as a back- ward region. As we become more homogenized and inundated with the corporate takeover of our world, I am trying to make viewers aware of the kinder, gentler, slower roots of the Southern experience.
I am working on a series of photographs that traces US Highway 17, the original North/South route before the behemoth I-95 was built. This less-traveled road runs just south of the Mason-Dixon line in Winchester, Virginia to Punta Gorda on the Florida coast. The construction of I-95 contributed to the demise of many mom & pop businesses along this path when traffic was diverted to the super highway. Yet much of the vin- tage flavor of Highway 17 is preserved because corporate logo gas stations and fast food chains did not wipe out the architecture and landscape that was typical of an earlier era of roadside America.
Since I grew up in the South, this rural iconography is extremely per- sonal to me and signifies a vanishing way of life and mode of travel. Highway 17 is a metaphor for the less hurried, more measured tempo of a time that is still with us, yet quaintly marginalized.
Locally-owned, country-style restaurants and roadside snack stands still reign on Highway 17, alongside the tobacco, tomato and cotton fields that run for miles. Rustic barns and hand-built houses persevere in an age of suburban sprawl and strip mall blight.
This series [of photographs] is of a country in transition. The English language signs slowly give way to the use of Spanish, signifying a shifting population. Other billboards and advertisement displays are a presenti- ment of what came before. An ice cream shop morphs into an insurance company which melts into a contemporary incarnation of a manicure shop called “Exotic Nails.” Highway 17 speaks to the heyday of the auto- mobile and the nostalgia of the family vacation, but it is still a living, vibrant thoroughfare that is a vital mode of travel. It transports us for- ward to our destination and back in time to our childhood.
TSM: The South is often characterized by our Northern neighbors as being backwards, that somehow, we are all still barefoot and wearing overalls. In reality, the South has given this country some of its best food, architecture, music, literature and art. What is it about this region that creates a land- scape of creative people?
MT: Much of the creativity of Southerners is rooted in the lack of economic growth and prosperity after the Civil War through the Great Depression. Southerners had to make do with what they had in food (think soul food and blue plate meat-n-three), in architecture (vernacular designs such as dogtrot, shotgun and cracker cottage), in folk art crafted from tin, plywood, mud, house paint and even bubble gum (like folk artist Nellie Mae Rowe).
Growing up in the South has afforded me a vantage point from which to observe the change in economic circumstances, change in attitude and change in landscape. Southerners (and I'm generalizing here) are almost genetically programmed to revere history and to grieve over loss.
TSM: Your work is becoming known outside the South, yet it will, more than likely, become intertwined with Southern culture permanently. A Meryl Truett piece will ultimately be defined by the subjects you photograph.
How do you want your work remembered and how much of the South do you want to be linked to you? Are the subjects you shoot the essence of who you are as a Southern artist or would you rather be known simply as a photographer of space?
MT: That's a tough one…I've certainly thought a lot about this because it's a slippery slope to be pigeon- holed as a Southern, region- al artist. I think the themes in my work of the vanishing landscape and a way of life is more universal to the country as a whole. My work is about the evolving social terrain of roadside Americana. From urban transition to the van- ishing rural individuality of the ex-urban landscape, I am attempting to capture a personal sense of place. The South just happens to be a fertile hunting ground for this type of imagery.
In Thump Queen, there is an image of a building in Savannah looking forlorn and secretive. Above the door is a hand-painted sign, which reads: The Last Time Around. It is unclear if this message refers to what lies inside the building, or if it is simply another Southern turn of phrase that can mean anything the store’s owner felt on a whim. Here in Savannah, where the strange and exotic is steadily giving way to the mainstream, the most important detail of the building is that it is still allowed to exist at all.